I don't know about the rest of you, but at my house, Paris-Roubaix morning is like Christmas when I was a kid: it's impossible to sleep if I know the hunt is on. It's the biggest suffer-fest of the year - a day for the hardest of the hard, and I am simply rubbing my palms together in anticipation.
It wouldn't be Paris-Roubaix without a little mud, would it? Well, it looks like the weather is going to cooperate. It's been raining for weeks, turning the 300 year old cobbled cowpaths of Northern France into sloppy mess, and forecasts put the temperature in the 50s with a better than 50% chance of rain, with wind, wind, wind. It's going to be a dirty one. Conditions like that will favor the tough guys of the peloton, but it's hard to say that there's really one true favorite in Sunday's contest. It's a wide open race, and like many of you, this race fan will probably develop carpal tunnel syndrome refreshing the Daily Peloton's ticker every 10 seconds; so without further ado, lets have a look at the boys, shall we?
The Lion of Flanders in his Final Classic
The current King of the Classics, Johan Museeuw, hangs up his kit this season, and this will be the Lion's last appearance on the cobbles of Northern France on Easter Sunday. A win for Museeuw would give him an historic 4th victory in the Queen of the Classics, matching the record of fellow Belgian Paris-Roubaix hero, Roger de Vlaeminck, the only man to have conquered "L'Enfer du Nord" four times in its 102 year history.
Museeuw in the mud, 2002
Museeuw's last victory in the Roubaix velodrome in 2002 was the finale of a remarkable ride, characterized by that peculiar inexorability that follows certain riders when it becomes perfectly clear that there is no way they can lose. Museeuw was untouchable, and seemed to glide over the cobbles as if conveyed by hovercraft toward his victory. The Lion of Flanders hasn't been up to that level thus far this season, plagued as he has been by an uncooperative gut, but he may have something in the tank for his last Roubaix and he's got excellent back-up in his QuickStep-Davitamon team.
2002 was also the year in which Wednesday's Ghent-Wevelgem vainquer Tom Boonen rode the the podium in Roubaix at only 21 years of age. Now 23, with a strong sprint and the very Belgian dream of winning on the cobbles in his blood, he's definitely a pretender to Museeuw's crown. Boonen will ride for Museeuw, but should the Lion founder, the Prince of Flanders has the quality to ascend the throne.
Also In the "no-slouches" department, QuickStep boasts Laszlo Bodrogi, 2001 Paris-Roubaix Champion Servais Knaven, and an in-form Stephano Zanini. Factor in the sentimental element, that QuickStep-Davitamon will be flying the flag of the Lion of Flanders over the cobbles for the last time, and these boys are going to be the toughest force to be reckoned with on Sunday.
The Usual Suspects
Wearing bib number one: Lotto-Domo's Peter Van Petegem. He's a strong, crafty rider, and though he hasn't been at the top of his game thus far this season, like everyone else, he'll be aiming for victory in Roubaix. Fassa-Bortolo's Franck Vandenbroucke has been disappointed this season as well, and will be looking to be in the action on Sunday. He's finished in the top ten in Roubaix, and will be ably supported by Juan Antonio Flecha, and Fabian Cancellara, both of whom have shown good form in recent races.
Last weeks Tour of Flanders victor, T-Mobile's Stephan Wesemann, is a perennial Paris-Roubaix favorite who has ridden in the action year after year only to be foiled by his shoes and pedals again and again. Pleased by the victory in Flanders, Wesemann still sets his cap at Roubaix over any other race. If he pulls off the Flanders/Roubaix double, he'll match last year's feat by Van Petegem. Weseman has a team of tough guys at the ready with the likes of Rolf Aldag, Andreas Klier, Sergei Ivanov and Jan Schaffrath.
Saeco's Dario Pieri was second in 2003 with a powerful ride. He could step up, as could Landbouwkrediet-Colnago's 39 year old powerhouse Ludo Dierckxsens. He'll be joined by a promising contingent as well, including breakaway artist Jacky Durand, Ludovic Capelle and Geert van Bondt. CSC lines up with Classics specialist Michele Bartoli at the helm, Rabobank brings Marc Wauters, and Mr Bookmaker's Roger Hammond is aiming high.
On a sadder note, Cofidis has withdrawn from the race amid doping accusations stemming from the Gaumont affair, which means Stuart O'Grady, Jimmy Casper and Matt White are out.
Meanwhile, there's US Postal-Berry Floor to consider.
What about Big George Hincapie & the Blue Train?
Another year, another all-out assault on the Queen of the Classics for America's number one Classics man, George Hincapie. Back after a 2003 Spring in the infirmary that kept him from his favorite races, Hincapie has been strong and consistent this season - kicking off the spring campaign with an 18th place finish with the bunch in Milan-San Remo; taking an overall victory with some savvy riding and an excellent time trial in De Panne; riding to a strong 10th in Flanders; and finishing one step off the podium in Ghent-Wevelgem.
As usual, Paris-Roubaix is the big show for George. Is he feeling the pressure? Not to hear him tell it.
Speaking to George Wednesday evening after Ghent-Wevelgem, he sounded a bit disappointed with his fourth, but looking forward as always to the mud and guts in Roubaix. Asked if the build-up gets under his skin, George told the Daily Peloton that he's keeping his cool: "I'll think about Paris-Roubaix Sunday morning," he says. "Those races are so hard, you just can't let that get to you. I've done everything I can to be ready, and my form is good. I'll go that morning and hope I can take advantage of my form, I'll hope the team is strong, and I'll hope everything goes well. I don't worry about it, though. I try to think of it as just another race. I'm ready."
Hincapie on the pave. Photo by Daily Peloton.
If Hincapie's luck and his strength on the cobbles holds, the first question will be his team: are they ready to go head to head with the teams that put the Classics first? Hincapie rode to strong finishes in Flanders and Ghent, but his fellow postmen were nowhere to be found at the end game. Hincapie reports that although having 2 men in the early break in Flanders was a good start, the team was spent by the end, and race strategies couldn't executed according to plan. In Ghent, Hincapie was the last Postman in the saddle at the finish. For Roubaix, the Posties are going to have to do better than that if they want to give their man a chance.
For Paris-Roubaix, Hincapie loses the help of experienced strongman Viatcheslav Ekimov, whose recent crash injuries have made it necessary for him to withdraw. "It's a big blow," says Hincapie, "how can you replace Eki?" Stepping into those big shoes on Sunday will be ex-mountain bike Champ Floyd Landis, though, so things could be worse. Landis is coming off of a killer early season, and should have no problem navigating the the rough terrain with his mad bike handling skills. Antonio Cruz and Benoit Joachim put in a great ride in the early break in Flanders, Pavel Padrnos and Victor Hugo Pena will provide horsepower, and Stijn Devolder and Max Van Heeswik could be active in the end.
Meanwhile, the other question that most often plagues the soft-spoken American is that of aggressiveness and gritty determination. After so many impressive finishes in Roubaix, I'd have to say Hincapie's gritty determination is more than up to snuff. He has finished with the best in Paris-Roubaix with every single start for years. He obviously has the strength for the long haul, an affinity for the cobbles, and no resistance to the wind and rain; but his recent gains as a climber have likely sapped the explosiveness of his sprint. If he comes to the line with the likes of Boonen, or an army of bogeys and no strong teammates, as has been the case in the past, there could be trouble in paradise.
Does the tough New York native have the grit to strike out on his own and make it stick? I must confess, I think he does. He's man enough for the job, he has the form, and he's sounding confident and ready to ride with all the conviction he brings to this race every time he saddles up. If the stars align, this could be his year.
So, as usual, Easter Sunday promises to be a thriller with so many strong competitors, and no straight-out favorite. All I can add is: bring it on.